SHARE

The Jonesville Riverfest will not be taking place in Jonesville this year, but the event may move its location to the City of Hillsdale, according to Don Germann, member of Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee, and Hillsdale Mayor Adam Stockford. 

A request from the City of Jonesville to receive written approval from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Com­munity Health Agency and later dis­cus­sions with the health agency resulted in the Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee rescinding it’s “request for the use of City facil­ities” for the event during a March 17 Jonesville City Council Meeting. 

“With not hosting Riverfest in 2020, busi­nesses and com­mu­nities lost out, so can­celing this year is dev­as­tating,” Germann said. 

Germann said he hopes the other members of the Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee will con­sider working with the City of Hillsdale to hold the annual event. 

“Mayor Stockford offered to allow us to come to Hillsdale to host Riverfest, and I’m all about col­lab­o­ration,” Germann said. “I’m going to go back to the Riverfest Com­mittee and use his invi­tation to grow Riverfest by engaging Hillsdale, Jonesville, and Litchfield.”

Stockford said if the com­mittee moves in that direction, he’s con­fident the two cities could put together a strong event. 

“We love our neighbors in Jonesville, and we are here for them,” Stockford said. “I’m happy to partner with their lead­ership over there on any­thing needed.” 

In a letter written by Jonesville City Manager Jeffrey Gray on Feb. 19, 2021, addressed to Laura Orlowski, the sec­retary of Jonesville Connect – – which is private non-profit orga­ni­zation that orga­nizes com­munity events for Jonesville like Riverfest –– Gray spec­ified that the committee’s plan for Riverfest “must include a written approval from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Com­munity Health Agency as it regards com­pliance with public health orders to mit­igate the spread of COVID-19.” 

Jonesville business owner Jim Pope, who has helped organize Riverfest for more than 20 years and is a member of the Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee, said he spoke with two employees from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Com­munity Health Agency about gaining written approval for the event. 

“There was no way the health department was going to give us per­mission,” Pope said. “Once the health department said that they would not give us per­mission, Don and the rest of us, asked, ‘Why do the rest of what the city wanted when we can’t meet all of the requirements?’” 

At the March 17 Jonesville City Council meeting during public comment, Germman, who has helped organize Riverfest for more than 15 years, read a letter written on March 17, 2021 addressed to Gray and the City Council. In the letter, Germann read: “Given the require­ments to be granted per­mission, it is unlikely that these will be met given recent con­ver­sa­tions with the Public Health Agency’s inability to provide written approval for events in any of the three county’s [sic] that they oversee.” 

Gray said the city was hopeful about being able to provide the facil­ities for Riverfest this year, but he and the council did not feel the Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee addressed all of the city’s con­cerns in the request to use facilities. 

“The main thing the city wanted to see was how the event would change due to COVID-19,” Gray said. “We wanted to know that proper health and safety mea­sures were in place and were looking for detail in terms of how the event would be exe­cuted dif­fer­ently com­pared to a normal year.” 

Gray said the city was most con­cerned with how the com­mittee planned on spacing out the entries in the car show, along with food and craft vendors. 

In the Jonesville Riverfest Committee’s request for “downtown side­walks” “the closure of” streets and “use of the Carl Fast Park” written on March 8, 2021, the com­mittee detailed three key points for the event: “1) Hosting a limited number of craft vendors in the downtown and Maumee Street are (overflow potential on Church Street) that are ade­quately spaced apart 2) Hosting two food vendors in the ‘Jonesville Glass­works’ parking lot with no seating area 3) Hosting a limited number of car/bike show par­tic­i­pants and poten­tially a tractor show in the Carl Fast Park.” 

Although the request to use city facil­ities did not specify dis­tances between car show entries and other vendors, Pope said people have had the last year to practice spatial distancing. 

“The crafters were always pretty spaced out, and this year I was planning on spacing them out a little bit more than pre­vious years,” Pope said. 

Within the request, Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee members also com­pared Riverfest to other large local outdoor events like the Straw­berry Fest in Cold­water and Polish Fes­tival in Bronson, both of which are still planned to happen according to the letter. 

The request also read the fol­lowing: “We are not asking anyone who is con­cerned to step outside of their comfort zone to par­tic­ipate, but we are requesting that you, the city manager and City Council, support our local busi­nesses and com­munity with this annual event request.” 

Both Germann and Pope said the Riverfest is an eco­nomic stimulus for the City of Jonesville and sur­rounding areas. Referring to local busi­nesses that have suf­fered because of COVID-19 reg­u­la­tions, Germann said this year’s Riverfest would have been par­tic­u­larly ben­e­ficial for Jonesville’s restaurants. 

“That’s part of the dev­as­tation of the can­cel­lation this year,” Germann said. 

Although he could not provide spe­cific numbers, Pope said there are typ­i­cally 60 – 70 vendors lined up in front of busi­nesses in downtown Jonesville, and Riverfest brings in about 5,000 people over the course of one weekend. 

“The restau­rants really would do well in the two to three days of Riverfest,” Pope said. “We had crafters come from as far as Wis­consin and the Upper Peninsula.” 

Even with this setback for the Jonesville Riverfest Com­mittee, Gray said the City Council has a good working rela­tionship with the committee. 

“Members of council have served on that com­mittee in the past, and one of the council members serves on the com­mittee cur­rently. We’re a small town, and we all know one another.” 

Gray was referring to George Humphries Jr., who was asked by the Mayor Pro-Tem Tim Bowman to recuse himself from voting and dis­cussing Riverfest as an agenda item during the March 17 City Council meeting. 

Germann said, however, the council allowed Humphries to talk about Riverfest during public comment. 

“City Council members, for the time I’ve been engaged with Riverfest, have been involved in Riverfest,” Germann said. “It does not make sense that this year they would ask George to recuse himself. George wouldn’t have had a strong influence over other members of the council, but it would have been nice to have his input on their behalf.” 

Sockford said no official steps have been taken to move Jonesville’s Riverfest to Hillsdale as of March 31, but he and Germann are both opti­mistic about the pos­si­bility of putting together a new event for both communities. 

“My hope is that with this loss, we can grow a greater event,” Germann said. “This has always been a won­derful spring com­munity event to kick off the year.”